In June of 2012, 110 Voices members plus "un hombre" Randy Armstrong traveled to Havana, Cuba on a cultural exchange with the National Choir of Cuba, one of the world's premier concert choirs. We performed formal concerts with the National Choir, the Cantores de Cienfuegos, and sang in the closing ceremony of a national choral festival that had been filling Havana with song throughout the week.
Our dozens of informal singing moments - performed by small groups in a senior center, children's charities, artists studios, restaurants, hotels and parks - were as fun and memorable as the formal concerts. Through the power of music, we touched and were touched by new friends in this complex and beautiful country.
A Travelogue by Cynthia Harriman, Soprano I
"Al Combate, Corred, Bayameses"
…a few voices began, at the front of our chartered plane. One hundred ten more voices joined in, singing the lyrics of the Cuban national anthem in three-part harmony, as we traveled the short hop from Miami to Havana. Our Cuban-American flight attendants, caught off guard, had tears in their eyes – and Voices from the Heart had our first inkling of how much reaching out to the Cuban people would mean, to us and to them.
It was hard to believe we were finally on our way to Cuba, after months of suspense. Though we had been planning this trip for more than a year, traveling legally to Cuba had turned out to be fraught with challenges – the first of which was obtaining an official license from the U.S. Treasury Department. We had applied months earlier for the license, with no guarantees of how long the process would take, yet we had to keep raising money, charting our itinerary, and setting concert dates on the faith that our application would be approved. Finally, in early May – less than two months before our departure – the word came down: “We have our license from the US Treasury Department!”
And now we were here. Our four buses pulled away from José Martí airport, passing Che Guevara billboards, 1950s Fords and Chevys, Soviet-era apartment blocs, and a sunny tropical land covered in green.
The US Government Decrees
… that anyone traveling to Cuba must “have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.” No lolling on the beach drinking mojitos or Cuba Libres all day – but this rule was one we would have invented for ourselves anyways. We were eager to meet the people of Cuba.
Our first night, still giddy with exhaustion from our 5 am Portsmouth departure, we met and traded songs with the Veteranos senior men’s softball team on the terrace of the Hotel Quinta Avenida, then danced in the lobby as our Token Man, musician Randy Armstrong, joined in with the hotel band to supply Caribbean rhythms.
Michael Eizenberg of Educational Travel Alliance, with extensive experience bringing groups to Cuba, had lined up a wonderful variety of connections for us. We visited an orphanage, where we sang a few numbers for the children and they sang for us in return. We watched a private rehearsal of the Opera de la Calle, a talented street opera troupe, and mingled with the performers. We visited an artists’ collaborative, then returned for an evening dance party with the artists. (If you’ve listened to “Buena Vista Social Club” you can imagine how wonderful the music is everywhere in Cuba, and how impossible it is not to dance.)
We dined several nights at paladars, the newly-authorized private restaurants that are springing up everywhere. We walked freely around Old Havana, without any sense that we were in a land of restricted freedoms.
There were so many other wonderful moments we all shared.
Walking the ramparts of the fairy-tale fortress city of Dubrovnik. Floating in the salty, buoyant Adriatic sea. Eating buffets of fresh fish and herbed vegetables lightly sautéed in olive oil. Wandering through Roman ruins in Split and in Pula. Riding a donkey and dancing to a hokey accordion player in Pazin. Cruising by boat to the resort town of Cavtat. Raiding our suitcases and layering on anything warm – sweaters and even bathrobes –in the parking lot of Plitvice National Park, when the scorching weather suddenly turned cold, then hiking past amazing waterfalls and clear turquoise pools. Visiting art galleries and shops in Ljubljana. Discovering that the German tourists eating lunch at the same restaurant as us also belonged to a chorus, and singing the Zulu song Siyahumba with them.
We were immersed in Cuban history and politics
As Cuba transitions from the decades-long rule of Fidel Castro, it’s now legal to buy and sell homes and cars, and private businesses of many types are being encouraged as an alternative employment option in a country where 85% of people still work in state jobs. And yet… our state-employed bus guides could not officially accompany us to the paladars, and a few weeks after we returned, we heard on NPR that Opera de la Calle had been shut down by the Cuban government for being too entrepreneurial. Only 4% of the population has regular internet access, and food rationing is still in effect. Cuba is going through growing pains, with two steps forward and one step back in its efforts to open up.
To better understand all these factors, Charles Barkley, Deputy Head of the US Interest Section in Havana (the name given to our government’s “this-is-not-an-embassy” presence in Cuba) briefed us about Cuban history and politics on our first morning. Then, book ending our experience on one of our last days, two savvy Cubans, José and Tomás Rubio, gave us their corresponding perspective on the American embargo, in place since 1960, and recent developments in Cuba.
Christine Pelham, our all-knowing tour leader on Voices’ Ireland and Croatia trips, joined us in Cuba too. Although Michael, by dint of his license to take travelers to Cuba, officially guided our trip and was invaluable in arranging so many important details, Christine worked with Joanne to connect us with other choruses in Cuba and to schedule concerts. (And then, this time around – she sang with the first sopranos!)
Voices sang half a dozen full concerts in Cuba
…starting on July 2, our first full day on the island, with a performance in the Hall of Mirrors at the Museum of the Revolution, formerly the Presidential Palace. W.C. Fields cautioned “never work with children or animals” – warning how hard it is to compete with their charm. After performing with both a preschool chorus and an elementary school group – both dauntingly professional – we’d have to agree with Fields. These children were not only charming but musically precocious. We clapped with the little ones on our laps, and taught the older children to perform the body percussion for “Bring a Little Water, Sylvie.”
On July 3 we all sang again, for a worker’s union, after seven of us had earlier detoured to the US Interest Section (our non-embassy) to kick off 4th of July celebrations with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. On Independence Day itself, our schedule started at a Senior Center at Iglesia Merced in Old Havana. About 50 elderly Cubans sat at long tables in a hot, still room, looking worn and tired. Music – and the kind attention of Voices members reaching out to sit with them – quickly livened up this group. (My roommate explained: “They just want to meet someone new. I simply listened, even though I didn’t understand a word.”)
After we sang, they surprised and delighted us by returning the favor, launching into their own lively performance at the other end of the hall, then leading something of a conga line around the hall. Although most of us spoke only a few words of Spanish, music and hugs transcended all barriers. (For many of us, our performances with the children and with the seniors were our two favorite concerts.
We sang with two world class professional choirs
That same afternoon we joined up with the National Chorus of Cuba, to perform at El Oratorio de Opera y Lirico San Felipe Neri, a beautiful old church building. The National Chorus of Cuba, under director Digna Guerra, is a professional chorus, paid by the state to rehearse for hours daily and to sing, both in Cuba and in regular international competitions. We respected their perfect and complex musical polish (something our group can only aspire to with two hours of rehearsal weekly) – and they appreciated our lively passion and African dancing.
Our next concert was in Cienfuegos, a UNESCO World Heritage site about four hours southwest of Havana. Barreling down interstate-quality divided highways in our four buses, we often shared the nearly-deserted road with farmers driving horse-drawn wagons, passing ride-share depots where people gather to hitch rides from sporadic passenger cars. There, we performed with the Cantores de Cienfuegos, under director Honey Moreira, in an upstairs room over the historic Teatro Terry. We watched the sun set through the tall open doors, as birds swooped in and out during our concert.
Back in Havana a few days later, we sang a few songs at the Closing Ceremony of the CorHabana International Chorus Festival in the Plaza Vieja, then wrapped everything up with a dinner and private songfest at the Hotel Nacional with the National Chorus of Cuba.
Finally we had an opportunity to get to know our Cuban counterparts, as their chorus split up, with a few members at each table interspersed with Voices members. At our table Carlos – who goes by Charlie – told us that he makes more money singing with the chorus than many professionals, like doctors and nurses, might make. Plus, he has a Spanish passport, and can travel freely. “I have the life I want here, but it’s lonely. Most of my friends have left,” Charlie told us. Karel, another member sitting with us, confirmed this trend. He had made plans to emigrate the next year, joining the exodus of educated young people. Our guide told us that 30,000 young and middle-aged Cuban citizens leave every year.
Cuba's future direction is unclear
In their lifetime and their parents’ lifetimes these young people have seen many hardships, especially in the early 90s – known as “the special period” – when an estimated 85% of the economy evaporated upon Russia’s withdrawal from the island. There was no mass transit (everyone rode bicycles) and electricity was available just 3 or 4 hours a day. Certainly things are better today, but who knows what tomorrow may bring? For those who can, the answer is often simply to leave.
And yet, there is plenty to stay for, too. Cuba is a country where art and music are highly valued, and family life is central. As our trip ended, we cruised the Malecón, Havana’s open-air living room along its seawall, and soaked in the lively socializing happening there. We visited the Sunday art market on the Paseo del Prado, where small children tried out their art skills under the tutelage of experienced artists, at a time when kids back home would be watching TV or playing video games. We left Cuba hoping that all the best of its culture can be maintained, as the country moves into its next chapter.